I was asked one of the days there whether people in Kerry have sympathy for the plight of Tyrone with all this Covid stuff. Or whether there’s much suspicion around the place about how they’re handling it. I hummed and hawed for a minute and said something along the lines of how you would naturally have a good bit of sympathy for them because nobody wants things to turn out the way they have and so on. But I’m not sure he bought it.
Of course there’s suspicion around the place! This is Kerry we’re talking about. More to the point, this is Tyrone we’re talking about! Nobody in the GAA thrives on a cause like Tyrone do. It’s in their DNA. And nobody in the GAA is more ready to see conspiracy theories in what Tyrone do than Kerry. That’s just reality.
You would find very few Kerry people, for example, who believe that Tyrone haven’t been able to have collective training. Very few. There wouldn’t be a lot of evidence for their beliefs but that’s not really the issue. The issue is that when it comes right down to it, Kerry people wouldn’t put anything past Tyrone. As a fella said to me the other day, ‘You’d hardly believe their radio!’
Tyrone did exactly the right thing. They realised that they had the GAA over a barrel. They knew – as everyone knew – that the GAA was going to find a way to play an All-Ireland semi-final
It probably isn’t very fair on Tyrone to be thinking this way but that’s where it is with a lot of Kerry people. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Myself, I’d be a bit more fair-minded about the whole thing.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Tyrone had a problem and they needed extra time to get over it. I always try to look at these things from a player’s point of view. If you’re down a few bodies and you haven’t been able to get everyone you want to training, you will go pursue whatever avenue is available to you. All you care about – all you can afford to ever care about – is getting your best team on the pitch in the best shape.
I think Tyrone did exactly the right thing. They realised that they had the GAA over a barrel. They knew – as everyone knew – that the GAA was going to find a way to play an All-Ireland semi-final. The Government put up the millions for last year’s championship and the GAA will probably have to go looking again at the end of this one. It was always going to be nearly impossible to turn down the revenue from 25,000 paying into a semi-final.
It’s the right solution for everybody. The GAA gets the money – and it’s badly needed after going so long without crowds. Tyrone get their extra fortnight to prepare, allowing them to send a team worthy of the name down to play. Whatever people say about how they should have been forced to play it, if they don’t have the bodies, they don’t have the bodies. Sending a load of under-20s and some club players down to Dublin to get a hosing would have been no good to anybody.
That’s why I think this has worked out as the best solution for Kerry as well. Imagine the game had gone ahead, either on its original date or last Saturday. If Tyrone had been forced to field a team and Kerry had wiped the floor with them, what good would that be? It would mean Kerry going into an All-Ireland final not having a clue of what their real level of form is.
At least this way, Saturday will give everybody a better sense of where things stand. If Kerry win against a Tyrone team that has had time to get itself properly prepared, they’ll be in decent enough shape going into an All-Ireland final. If they don’t, we can safely say they weren’t going to beat Mayo anyway.
Along with Mayo, they're one of only two teams that haven't lost a game all season but people in Kerry are always hard to please
The build-up has been tricky for Kerry to navigate, obviously enough. I would imagine that the first quarter on Saturday might be messy enough because it has to be very difficult to judge the preparation in these circumstances. You’re bringing players to the boil and then you’re letting them cool off. But you’re being careful to not let them cool off too much before you bring them back to the boil again. It’s bound to be a real balancing act. And you won’t know if you’ve got it right until 10 minutes into the game.
Kerry are in a strange enough place at the minute because I don’t think they’ve got the credit they deserve within the county for anything they’ve done so far. Along with Mayo, they’re one of only two teams that haven’t lost a game all season but people in Kerry are always hard to please.
One of the things I love about living in Kerry is that you walk down the street at lunchtime and you’ll have 10 different conversations and they’ll all be about the same thing. There’ll be 10 different opinions too. But in general, the glass will always be half-full.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had in the street in Tralee on the Tuesday after Kerry won the 2014 All-Ireland. The final against Donegal wasn’t a great game by anyone’s measure but even so, an All-Ireland is an All-Ireland. You take them any way they come. And yet the first thing out of the mouth of a gentleman I met that day was, “It wasn’t one of Kerry’s better All-Irelands, was it?”
I could only burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe he was serious. Where else would you get that kind of attitude? To me, it was a great All-Ireland – they don’t come in the post. And by God, it gets better with every year that has passed since. That’s seven years ago and there’s only a handful of that team still playing. Tell them it wasn’t one of their better All-Irelands and see how far you get.
But that’s the way people go on down here sometimes. This year has been no different. Hammer Galway and Tyrone in the league? Sure neither team were at the races when they came down the road. Draw with the Dubs in Thurles? Well, that doesn’t look like such a great result now, does it? Especially since Dublin only scored 10 goals all year and four of them came against Kerry in one game.
Paudie Clifford has added a different dimension to the whole thing, stitching everything together and setting the tone by working like a dog
And don’t even try to get Kerry people to give the team any credit for winning the Munster championship! Tipperary? Sure they parked the bus. Clare? Probably the best team Kerry have faced yet but still a good bit off. Cork? Ah now, come on.
But I think Kerry deserve way more credit than they’re getting. They have dealt with everything that was put in front of them, they haven’t really wobbled - apart from that shaky defensive performance against Dublin in the league. You can’t ask much more from them than what they’ve produced.
And most importantly, their core players have been very good. David Clifford and Seán O'Shea have led the attack really well, David Moran has been in great form in midfield. And Paudie Clifford has added a different dimension to the whole thing, stitching everything together and setting the tone by working like a dog. Paul Murphy is coming back into form too.
Tyrone have improved under the new management. They are expressing themselves that bit more. It's been very noticeable that their kick-out strategy has changed significantly, in that Niall Morgan now has big men to aim at around the middle and they're not afraid to go looking for them.
I always got the sense towards the latter half of the Mickey Harte reign that Tyrone were so regimented in their way of playing that they were nearly wasting Morgan's kicking ability by making him go short so much of the time. But now they have Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick – both of them big men well able to fetch high ball – and Morgan is going looking for them. It doesn't always work but it gives them a good platform when it does.
And they’ve come through the rough and tumble of an Ulster championship to get here. They’ve beaten the last three winners of the Ulster title to do so. They saw out the Ulster final against Monaghan, which was no small thing on the first big day of the Dooher-Logan regime. And they did it despite Logan not being able to go to the game and being down four players. Any way you look at it, they’re a serious outfit.
But in the end, whatever sympathy or suspicions anyone has, the one thing we can all agree on is that their build-up to this semi-final has been badly interrupted. At the very least, this is far from an ideal scenario to be carrying into the second biggest game of the year. Ahead of an All-Ireland semi-final, you want to have your ducks in a row a good fortnight out from the game. Tyrone are still having to check their ducks for runny noses the past two weeks.
The big factor hanging over this game and the final is the fact that the Dubs are gone. All three teams left in it have been walking an inch or two taller since last weekend. Mayo deserve every bit of that inch or two and now Kerry and Tyrone have to go and earn it. All three teams can smell glory in a way that hasn’t been available to anybody in the championship for a whole seven years.
In the heel of the hunt, I still think Kerry have more quality at their disposal. This is the third year of Peter Keane’s management and all those young players he brought in when he arrived are coming up to their mid-20s now. I think Croke Park suits this Kerry team and the bit of good back-to-school weather will do them no harm either.
It all just seems to have set up well for Kerry here. There’s an All-Ireland there to be won. I expect them to take the first step towards it on Saturday.